From Tragedy Comes Triumph

Refuge Homes

For those who survived the infamous Black Saturday bushfires that decimated much of Victoria four years ago, the memories of the inferno still linger. Deemed “catastrophic” bushfires by Australian officials, hot and dry conditions were tragically ideal for the devastation. Despite evacuations, the fires claimed the lives of 173 people, injured almost 500 others and killed tens of thousands of animals. The cost to homes and property was staggering.

To the Phelan family – who lived through the infamous Black Saturday fires – the disaster became an opportunity to help others in adversity now and to mitigate damage from fires and other perils in the future.

As Director at Refuge Homes Pty Ltd, Mr Phelan remembers the fires as hell on earth, with choking black smoke so dense that the afternoon sun virtually disappeared into darkness. “It’s not just the day that causes the problem; it’s the aftermath and it takes a long time for people to heal,” he says. Losing some property and equipment, Mr Phelan says he was fortunate compared to others who died, saw marriages break apart, or lost their houses.

After experiencing personal loss as well as seeing the effects the Black Saturday fires had on friends, family and neighbours, the Phelan family formed Refuge Homes Pty Ltd with one goal: to create superior-quality dwellings that are safe, extremely durable, and able to withstand fires, cyclones, and other natural disasters. “One of our main aims was to find a structure that was able to put up with our natural Australian extremes,” he says of his proud, family-owned and operated company.

Mr Phelan gained considerable experience before the creation of this business. Working for a number of mid-tier companies, he initially apprenticed in the domestic building market and then moved into heavy infrastructure projects (such as building bridges, creating sewerage and other projects for water departments, and creating mainly concrete structures for railroads). His knowledge of heavy infrastructure, combined with a background in domestic dwellings and a passion for creating innovative housing, led to the creation of durable homes able to withstand Australia’s tough climatic conditions.

In response to the 2009 fires that caused so much loss of life and destruction of property, the Victorian Bushfire Attack Levels (BALs) standard was created. A new Australian Standard (AS 3959-2009), the goal of BALs is to significantly improve the ability of buildings to withstand attack from bushfires. Based on six defined new construction requirements, the BALs are on a sliding scale of risk from BAL-LOW (insufficient risk to warrant specific construction requirements) at the low end to BAL-FZ (direct exposure to flames from fire front in addition to heat flux and ember attack). Forming part of building permit construction requirements, BALs is now used in bushfire-prone areas across Australia, and takes such factors into consideration as the Fire Danger Index, the slope of the land, types of surrounding vegetation and the vegetation’s proximity to any building.

The Refuge Homes team embarked on researching the best, most fire-resistant structures and materials available. Throughout 2010 and 2011, products underwent extensive testing and the company’s business structure was carefully planned and developed. By 2012, the first two full living prototypes were created and introduced to the Australian marketplace. “We made sure that we fine-tuned the entire system, which would pick up any durability, workmanship, construction or design problems,” explains Mr Phelan. “It was crucial to ensure the whole thing was working and that we were quite content with what we were taking to the market in time, money and product.”

For Refuge Homes and its clients, years of research, testing, and development have paid off with the creation of highly liveable structures that are not only flame zone rated and able to withstand cyclone winds of category 5 (up to 320 km/h winds), but are attractive, affordable, easily customisable, require minimal maintenance and have an energy rating above 8 stars, far exceeding the current residential dwelling building code requirement of a 6 star energy rating. Referring to the amount of artificial heating and cooling that is required to maintain comfortable living conditions within a home, a one star rating refers to a building shell which does almost nothing to reduce the discomfort of hot or cold weather, while a 10 star home is unlikely to require any artificial cooling or heating. In addition to greater comfort for the homeowner, an 8 star energy rating means considerably less money spent on energy.

A large part of the reason for these optimal star ratings – also known as thermal performance – comes as a result of Refuge Homes’ state of the art designs, construction materials and methods. Keeping homes cooler in summer and warmer in winter at a considerably reduced cost means houses thermally perform 30 per cent more optimally than an average new home.

Designed and crafted to have a structural life of up to one hundred years, Refuge Homes represent an investment that is truly built to last. A novel system which has adapted heavy infrastructure building techniques to suit the domestic market, the company’s structures are made in situ of cast concrete walls and roofs. Years ago, the Australian government investigated systems which ended up cracking and were poorly insulated. That was then, however, and this is now; after devoting almost two years to research, the Refuge Homes team came up with a system for domestic dwellings which is less cumbersome, more cost-effective and much more durable for Australia’s challenging climate than brick veneer and other systems.

“Knowledge and time has changed a lot,” says Mr Phelan. “We’ve come up with a system which we believe is achievable in a new market.” Built for durability and longevity, Refuge Homes’ dwellings are designed to require as little upkeep as possible – such as having no gutters to clean – which will save homeowners time and money now and into the future.

Unlike other building systems, such as original brick, veneer, or timber, Refuge Homes structures will not rot; are resistant to termites and other wood-eating insects; and, since they are made from slow-setting concrete, will not crack. Cracks in brick eventually require costly and messy brick replacement and tuck pointing, yet even after several years, the company’s two prototypes have shown no hairline cracking at all. “If there ever is cracking, it will be minimal,” comments Mr Phelan. “By owning a Refuge Home, clients eliminate the long-term maintenance requirements that are inevitable with owning a brick home – which could equate to significant cost savings.”

To help preserve Mother Nature, Refuge Homes sources an environmentally friendly concrete product made from recycled materials. Produced with a 28 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions compared with standard concrete mixes, the purpose-designed concrete mix is better for the planet and maintains incredible strength and durability.

With versatile design capabilities, the houses are built on slabs which are similar to a standard brick veneer home. Unlike traditional construction – which requires countless trades to get the work completed – Refuge Homes have the façade and structure in one system, roof included. Having the same crew work on concrete walls and the roof means less management; fewer trades involved; and a faster completion time. Services such as electrical are in the 150 ml thick walls, plasterboard is on the inside, and exteriors can be clad or painted as desired. The company is now working on some double-storey dwellings which boast liveable outdoor space on top of the roof.

“Another good thing about our system is that it is very versatile,” says Mr Phelan of the homes, which are price-comparable to brick veneer homes. When it comes to safety, however, there is no comparison. A common misconception about brick veneer homes is that they are safer, which is not necessarily true. The air pockets between the brick act like a chimney and actually burn the roof faster than weather board homes.

“With our system, the windows are the only variable,” says Mr Phelan. “The roofs, walls and the slab will always stay. Fire engineers go through the whole system; the adaption of products that we use and the window adaption are all signed-off by our fire engineers – an independent body.”

With downloadable forms available from the company’s website, Refuge Homes works closely with clients on all aspects of their new house. Able to supply clients with an architect or drafting services, the company can build from one of its many pre-designed homes or to pre-designed drawings. Free, no-obligations quotes are available and consultants will contact interested parties within 24 hours to discuss requirements.

Additionally, Refuge Homes offers to provide the ‘structures only’ to traditional builders who are experiencing prohibitive costs or lack of knowledge with meeting some of the higher end BAL rating requirements or; builders in general whose clients prefer a concrete home. By offering just the structural component, Refuge Homes enables potential clients to use their preferred builder but still receive the benefits that a Refuge Home has to offer. “We are not here to eliminate competition; we are simply trying to provide a better building solution to the Australian domestic market. Whether we are building the homes to completion or just the structures we will have achieved our objective, which put simply is to provide safer, more durable, cost effective homes to Australians,” says Mr Phelan.

“We like to build, and we have a passion to build,” says Mr Phelan. “We are successful, but we are not money-driven. Our primary goal was to create a system which is deliverable. We believe there is substantial opportunity for this, and similar types of systems, to make a pretty good stronghold in the domestic market.”

Home Automation

Call it ‘domotics,’ and you are likely to receive a blank stare, but refer to it as ‘smart home’ or ‘home automation,’ and you will get a nod of acknowledgement. For the past few years, consumers have heard the word ‘smart’ attached to countless products and services, from food and drink to snacks like popcorn and mobile phones, which no one seems to refer to as a ‘cellphone’ anymore. Yet what, exactly, constitutes ‘smart’?

June 2, 2020, 3:00 PM AEST